Doubt and Death 

When no one and everyone is to blame for a baby’s drowning.

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Accidents happen. Sometimes, people die. When the victim is a baby, a collective chill goes up and down the spine. How could this happen? Who would let it happen? And why? But when a child dies from neglect, assigning blame can be difficult.

On July 24, 2006, the Sieverts’ household was settling down for a quiet night after a weekend of revelry. The two-bedroom apartment was home to five adults—most barely 18—and two babies. That night, 20-year-old James Sieverts, his 1-year-old daughter Justice and 3-week-old infant son, their mother Megan Michels, 19, and three others lounged in their West Valley City home.

Sieverts and his roommate, Travis Casey, played video games in the living room as Michels breastfed the infant. At her feet, Justice played. Michels asked Rebecca Harper, her 17-year-old friend, if she would change and bathe Justice. Harper obliged, changing Justice and then putting the child into the bathtub. Then Harper left the bathroom. Several minutes later, she returned. The baby was fine. Then, she left again.

When Harper came back to the bathroom for the third time, Justice was laying face down in the bath water.

Harper screamed.

Justice had drowned in the bathtub while five adults sat in the next room.

In 2005, six children under the age of 5 drowned in Utah, according to the Utah Department of Health. “In most cases, the person who was supposed to be watching the child reported that they looked away, answered the phone or left the area for ‘just a minute,’” a Department of Health press release warned.

Dr. Todd Grey, Utah’s chief medical examiner, says baby drownings are all too common. He estimates he sees from a half-dozen to a dozen cases per year. In most cases, it’s a lack of supervision, he says. “It’s just stupidity, basically.”

On June 20, the daylong jury trial of James Sieverts, in 3rd District Court for negligent homicide, raised questions about who was to blame. While the trial, presided over by Judge Sheila McCleve, eluded to the possibility of collective guilt, it concentrated on the defendant’s responsibility. Did Sieverts know his daughter was left in the bathtub alone, and did he leave her there? If convicted of this class A misdemeanor, Sieverts would face up to a year in jail and up to $4,250 in fines.

Everyone involved in the case, from the defendant to both lawyers, agreed that there was enough guilt to go around.

Sieverts’s attorney, Rudy Bautista, saw much of the blame as collective. “These were children from broken homes and foster programs,” he says. “I think [they were] undereducated people in over their head. It’s more a social issue.”

Duane Betournay, director of Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services, the agency that interviewed the couple, agrees. “I certainly think there’s lots of responsibility to go around if you look at the spectrum of what could have prevented these young teenagers from getting in this situation in the first place,” he says.

Conventional wisdom might posit that poverty and social problems factor into such incidents. Justice lived in an unstable home with young, unwed parents who never graduated from high school and who came from broken homes themselves.

The problem with this explanation, Betournay says, is that it ignores personal responsibility and unfairly casts aspersions on a whole swath of capable parents. There’s nothing new about young, unprepared parents, yet most babies survive to adulthood, he says. “This same scenario could play out whether or not they came from broken homes, or because of their economic status,” he says.

But James Cope, the Salt Lake County prosecutor in the case, was concerned with one thing: personal responsibility. “I think at least three people had enough responsibility to be prosecuted,” he says.

The fourth-floor courtroom was filled with Sieverts’s family and friends as the trial proceeded.

All day, the jury listened to two conflicting versions of the evening’s events.

The prosecution’s main witness, Rebecca Harper, recalls Sieverts as the last person to see the baby before she was found drowned in the tub. Harper testified that while she was with Michels in the living room, Sieverts looked in on the baby. “’She’s OK. She’s in there playing,’” she heard Sieverts say.

The defense argued that no one but Harper remembered Sieverts checking on the baby. Michels testified her daughter had been taken out of the bath and put to bed. “I thought [Justice] was asleep,” Michels says. Sieverts didn’t know Justice was in the bath at all, Bautista argued.

But during a long conversation with Harper, Michels said, it seemed Michels knew Justice was in the bath. Michels testified: “And I said [to Harper], ‘What are you doing? You are supposed to be with the baby.’ But she did not go away, and I got very upset with her.”

Cope didn’t believe the story put forth by Michels and the defense. “There’s something going on here that makes adult people uneasy,” he said in closing arguments. “Where in the world did all those kids in that apartment get the idea that it was OK to leave that child unattended in the bathtub? Her dad knew better than that. Her baby-sitter knew better than that. There were probably a couple other people in that apartment who knew better than that.”

At 8:30 p.m., after 90 minutes of deliberation, the jury found Sieverts not guilty.

But a baby girl is still dead. The surviving sibling is in state custody. His parents hope to get him back soon.

The blame falls totally on Harper, Michels says. “I really do think she is the one who is responsible.”

And acquitted defendant James Sieverts, interviewed after the trial, says he shares the blame. “Everybody that was in that house feels somewhat responsible. All of us knew better.”

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